Saturday, January 15, 2011



Map of Kenya with Nakuru located below the equator ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Nakuru borrowed its’ name from the Maasai word, ‘Nakurro’ meaning 'dusty place'. It came into existence during the thrust of the Kenya-Ugandan Railway. Nakuru is sandwiched between Lake Nakuru to the south and Menengai crater, an extinct volcano on the northern side of the town, that scales to a height of 2,490 m. It is the second largest surviving crater in the world with a surface area of 90 sq km. Interestingly enough, in the 19th century it was the site of a bloody battle between different Masai clans vying for the pastures of the Rift Valley slopes and Naivasha. The Ilaikipiak morans were defeated by their southern neighbors, the Ilpurko Masai, who reputedly threw the former over the crater edge. According to the legend, the fumaroles rising from the crater beds are the souls of the vanquished seeking to find the way to heaven. The Maa word, ‘Menenga’ means ‘the dead.’

Further to the North East of the town is Bahati Escarpment that forms the western fringe of the Abedare Escarpment. Lake Nakuru National Park lies close to Nakuru town and was established in 1961. It started off small, only encompassing the famous lake and the surrounding mountainous vicinity. The lake was encircled by swampy land followed by savanna. Lake Nakuru is one of the Rift Valley soda lakes and is famous for its' vast numbers of flamingos and wild animals. It is the fourth largest urban centre in Kenya and lies 1859 m above sea level.

The history of Nakuru can be traced back to prehistoric times. Archaeological discoveries were made in 1926 by Louis and Mary Leakey, about 4 km away, at the Hyrax Hill reserve. The excavations found evidence of seasonal settlements as far back as 3,000 years ago. The presence of beach sand indicated that Lake Nakuru may have extended to the base of the hill in former times, signifying that Hyrax Hill could very well have been a peninsular or an island. It acquired its' name during the early part of the 20th century because of the abundant hyraxes that dominated the rocky fissures of the hill. It is considered one of the country’s most important Neolithic excavation sites dating back from 1500 B.C. Nakuru also owes part of its' early growth due to Lord Delamere.

Ibrahim and his fellow travellers rose early the next morning after a not so restful night under the stars. With wild animals lurking in the dark of the night, sleep had totally escaped them. One of the men had been feasted upon by fleas and was having a hard time dealing with the outcome. Ibrahim stood up and stretched his thinning body and drew in the early morning air, it smelled sweet as he inhaled it into his lungs. The temperature was perfect and warmed up his cold bones gently, Ibrahim embraced the feeling.

Having reached his destination, an excitement filled his soul and a sudden surge of energy flowed through his body, he was ready to accomplish his life's dream. Nakuru was an entrepot in the centre of the Rift Valley. It was an unspoiled, windswept and arid plain without any villages or 'bomas', there was not a soul in sight.

Powdery light-brown soda-dust blew in clouds around the lake, filling his nostrils uncomfortably, he cupped his hand over his nose before turning his back on the wind. The ground was spongy beneath, as he stood still to admire the view. The glassy lake rippled with pink, mirrored the velvety deep-turquoise mountains that enveloped half way around. Flamingo hill towered handsomely on the other side. The colors were strikingly sensational. He imprinted the magnificent picture in his mind's eye and captured the moment forever. As they walked through the thicket, the flat topped yellow acacia trees stood grandly in the far distance. They talked amongst themselves, occasionally hearing a rustling amongst the shaggy overgrown grass, more often than not, it was a herd of antelope, trailing along side one another. On noticing the men, they would nervously flick their bushy tails, taking off in leaps and bounds in the opposite direction. ‘A land blessed with abounding beauty’, thought Ibrahim as he pondered over the marvels of Africa’s incredible nature. In the far distance, pelicans floated about with their long boat-like beaks, their heads bopping up and down every few seconds as they scooped up water.

Leopards inhabited the area and they had heard the distant howls of silver back jackals as they huddled together under their carts at night. Sometimes their hearts boomed uncontrollably in their ears as an adrenalin rush gushed through them whenever they heard a startling sound. The thought of facing these fierce beasts unarmed, made their skin crawl. Jiggers were still a menace and drinking water was closely guarded as it was drawn from rivers or streams. As they continued, a rich savannah stretched itself handsomely across the land, only interrupted by low lying hills scattered at intervals.

Ibrahim wished to remain relatively near the shores of the Lake as it was a landmark known to first time travellers. He needed a supply of fresh water within a few miles of him, and had secretly picked a location. He decided to branch off from the group and took himself back towards the lake.

Setting up shop under a small tent, he could be seen merchandising anything from foodstuff, small hardware goods and other useful items. Getting attacked by wild animals was one of the dangers that continued to poise a threat. He protected himself at night by using chopped thorn bushes that he encircled around his tent at night. When supplies ran low, he made the long hike back to Nairobi, sometimes journeying all the way to Mombasa, taking months before arriving back in Nakuru. And many times, when business was down, he would barter cloth or beads in exchange for food. In 1898, his mules died due to tsetse fly, and he traded cloth for some more.

These were some the most difficult, challenging and very long moments in Ibrahim's life; knowing his family were far so away did not help matters. Sometimes weeks could go by without him seeing a single soul, and the nights that followed, seemed even darker. The stillness echoed in silence, channeling an emptiness between his ears with a faint high pitched frequency that transcended him into an innermost journey of his soul. As time rolled by and with the railway line progressing towards Nakuru, the pristine wilderness was soon transformed and people started to trickle in.

The Lake when the Uganda Railway reached Nakuru


The first major Indian influx in Kenya began in the late the 1800's with the building of the railway from Mombasa to Victoria Nyanza, (Lake Victoria), and again in the early 1900's when many more Indian settlers arrived. The construction of the railway required a skilled labour force of stonemasons, carpenters, builders, blacksmiths and casual labourers. The labourers were referred to by the British as 'coolies.' When the word entered the English language, it was a designated term used for a low-status class of workers; nowadays, a few people regard it as a racial epithet or a slur. Most of the recruited Indian workforce was done under contract of the Northwest Province of India by Mr A. M. Jivanjee. Ronald Preston was appointed to take charge of laying rails in 1897. Mr. George Whitehouse, Lieu-Col. J. H. Patterson and Mr. Ronald Preston were the engineers. Approximately 32,000 Indians and 2,600 Africans laboured on the construction of what came to be known as the 'Uganda Railway'. The first rail was laid in Mombasa on 30th May, 1896. In 1898, man-eating lions delayed the construction of the railway, killing eighty African and twenty-five Indian labourers and one British superintendent called C. H Ryall; hence the book, ‘Maneaters of Tsavo’ and 'Ghost and the Darkness'. The British had named one of the lions, ghost and the other darkness. J.H Patterson, a divisional engineer, managed to kill one of the lions, and three weeks later, he killed the second. These courageous and hardworking men who dug the land, bit by bit, mile for mile, sacrificed not only their families, and country, but themselves when they crossed the waters into Africa. Tough living conditions, lack of water and food, hard manual labor using picks or shovels, heavy loads of rocks that scared their nude hands, outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, black water fever, plague, dysentery, typhoid, small pox and septicemia were just a few of the ailments they endured. Long delays due to heavy rains that damaged earth works and caused derailment and locusts added to the suffering. After the completion of the 582 miles of the Lunatic line, about 7,000 Indians stayed on in Kenya, 2,500 had died and 6,000 were invalid.

Men working on the railway


In the 1900’s, a vast number of European settlers arrived, mostly from South Africa, followed by the British, Australians, Germans and people of other European descent. Initially the first British to visit Kenya, did so as game hunters, and on seeing the abundance of wildlife, wide open spaces and beautiful landscape, applied for land. It seemed as a privileged life style, in comparison to the one they were accustomed to in Europe, after the Industrial revolution. Until the 1880's, the Rift Valley and the Aberdare highlands remained the heartland of the Maasai. The English negotiated a treaty with the Maasai laibon (chief, or spiritual leader) to begin work on the Mombasa-Uganda railway, which cut straight through the Maasai grazing lands. The British government hence invited the European settlers due to the massive expenses incurred constructing the railway, hoping to recover the phenomenal cost through extensive exports of settler cash crops. The allocation of land to the European farmers, meant that many tribes were driven out of their habitat and pastoral lands, and made to relocate in other designated areas. The first ‘Land Regulations’ of the East Africa Protectorate had been published in 1897, but it had not affected the country until 1899. The regulations were later replaced by the ‘Crowns Land Ordinance in 1902 where by granting freehold or leases of up to ninety-nine years.

By December 1901 the railway line from Mombasa to Kisumu had been completed. This eventually put an end to the massive slave trade in East Africa and jointly, to the caravan loads of slave porters that trekked their way for months on end carrying burdensome loads across the country, and into Uganda. Ivory though continued as a major trade commodity.

Nakuru Station when the Ugandan rail line first joined it in 1900

Royal Train in Nakuru Station

Nakuru Railway Station


  1. I myself was born and raised in Nakuru, Kenya in the 1950’s and know of Ibrahim Karimbux very well. I visited the grocery many a times as a toddler, and have nothing but nostalgic memories. Most of my family still speak of the Ibrahim Karimbux day’s in Nakuru. Much of my excitement comes from reading your chapter write-ups on ‘The House That Stood Still’, because I can very easily connect to your writings - which leave me in complete awe to say the least.
    B. P. USA

  2. I remember Ibrahim Karimbux supermarket too! My mum worked at the Standard Bank across the street and at the time it was the only supermarket in Nakuru so that's where many people went to shop. When I went away to boarding school - this was where I got my 'grub' from. I always associate the store with Scottish shortbread cookies, marshmellow cones and nibbits.
    My father moved around alot and a similar store in Nyeri where we also lived was 'Osman Allu... Nice memories of my youthful days..